Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Based on a True Story"

One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about since coming to Fuller seminary is the problem of historicity in the Bible. Plain and simple, there seems to be plenty about the Bible that doesn’t fit the 21st People swinging toward the “conservative” end of the spectrum tend to stick to a rigid, literal reading of the supposed historical elements of the Bible while those on the “liberal” end tend to disregard its historical value entirely and spiritualize these stories. It seems to me that both tendencies are somewhat misguided. The problem I see it is that some thinkers are too Enlightened for their own good, unrealistically conflating “truth” and “history” as though the two are independent, mutually supportive and absolute objects. What moved, inspired, challenged and conveyed truth to the ancients was story, and I believe the same rings true today. Even enlightened 21st century North-Americans often convey truth in narrative form.

I had a history class as an undergraduate whose professor repeatedly insisted that true documentaries are as objective, detached and cold as possible. In other words, a proper documentary merely presents the facts. Don’t give us music, interpretation or emotion. The way to get at truth, in this professor’s mind, was to be as “objective” as possible. This approach is extremely problematic. The goal is the same one journalists supposedly hold to: objectivity. During college, I also took a news writing class that taught me how to arrange a story. So stop and think: journalism is supposed to be objective, right? But what makes something newsworthy? Good stories make good news. Narrative plays the crucial role. News is story, or in other words, truth comes in narrative form. And who decides what makes a good story? To get a bit more abstract, what makes for the truth in the first place: the words on the page of your newspaper or the reality beyond them? Clearly our language is, by nature, symbolic. The words we use to communicate only mediate, that is, connect two intangible points. But I’m getting a bit off track.

The metaphor, or “symbol” I want to use to investigate the nature of Biblical truth is one every American is quite familiar with: film story, especially movies “based on a true story.” Getting back to that history professor of mine… after reflecting on the idea of detached objectivity as the means to “understand what really happened,” I came to believe that this approach is ridiculous. Here’s why. I am an avid World War II buff. Why? I don’t really know. I don’t like violence and I may be a pacifist. Anyway, I’ve read a lot of books about this war, from objective accounts of specific battles—this unit moved here at this time and did this and suffered this many casualties—to books that take more creative liberties. I enjoyed Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers and Band of Brothers, but not because they told me “all I needed to know” about E company of the 101st In fact, there’s a lot of boring information the books don’t include. On one level, it’s because true objectivity is simply impossible for anyone except God. The “absolute truth” of the experiences of that company could not be recorded in a thousand volumes and shouldn’t be. Any form of communication necessary sifts through the facts, edits them and transmits them via symbols—word, language, music, etc. That’s the major failure of my professor’s insistence on “objectivity,” I think. The most objective account is necessarily selective in its presentation of the facts and must convey them by symbols, which are then interpreted by somebody else. Here’s what strikes me most about this distinction between objective and narrative forms: I’ve read a lot of straightforward accounts and seen some dispassionate, “informative” documentaries—that is, I’ve received a lot of information. I’ve also watched the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima and Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Here’s the difference: the documentaries never left me in tears. So which is more true? I would contend that these feature films, complete with actors dressed up to resemble the real people, shot on soundstages and augmented by musical scores convey at least another truth, if not a greater one. This, I believe, is not something to fear, but to embrace.

Take for example, another great movie, Fargo. It opens with the words, “This is a true story,” but it’s not. The film is entirely fictional. So why didn’t I feel cheated after discovering that it wasn’t really a true story? Why didn’t I return the DVD and demand reimbursement? Why did I enjoy this untrue true story all the more for its toying with the truth? Because that’s how stories work. By design, narrative is the shaping the events to convey something about reality to its recipient. It seems truth is, in many ways, an inherently narrative thing.

All this to say: if certain parts of Scripture aren’t “historically true,” why would that get under my skin? I’ve heard a certain pastor say: “Unless something scriptural is clearly figurative, then you should believe it’s literal.” Interestingly, what’s “clearly figurative” isn’t so clear to me because the same group of people advocating this approach are the same ones trying to tell me that Genesis 1-11 and the stories of Jonah and Job are literally true, and even speculate about the mysterious leviathan in Job and the Psalms (“Is it a dragon? Maybe the Loch Ness monster?”). Instead of dogmatically demanding infallibility or some equivalent, I’d rather take the best historical, scientific and archaeological information available, accept the narrative structure of these accounts, and approach them like I do Band of Brothers. Clearly, something really did happen in a specific, concrete way in the Ardennes in 1944, and the same is true of the origins of the universe billions (or thousands) of years ago, but I’m not interested in the cold, dead facts. Instead, I want to know how it feels to huddle in a damp hole all day without proper clothing, waiting for German counterattack while ammunition dwindled. I want to hear the crunch of snow under soldier’s boots as they march breathlessly toward enemy lines. I want to see the panic on the face of a nineteen year old running desperate for his life as enemy tanks close in. This is the realm of the artist. This is where a deeper reality lies.

So my contention isn’t to do away with notions objectivity in journalism or attempts to reconstruct what “really happened” in historical events. I’m thinking these are necessary points to depart from, interpret and re-imagine. Otherwise, my analogy is useless. Obviously, there must actually be such a thing as an army, war, fear, pain, death and so on to make Band of Brothers possible. People of faith need some cold, hard objectivity to provide the framework for works of creativity, imagination and interpretation. Something as fanciful as Star Wars would be impotent if not rooted in universal human experience, that is, reality. After all, nobody ever blew up a death star or constructed a light saber. Yet, these films inspire remarkable (sometimes scary, sometimes sad) devotion in millions of faithful Jedi. Reality is bound up in story. Would it be inappropriate to label Reality itself as “narrative”? I’m not yet sure.

One thing is for certain: the Bible is not what it could be (and what some still claim it is): a statement of faith followed by a series of propositions supported by empirical evidence. Why does the Bible (or any Scripture I’m aware of) give us Truth and the nature of Reality in the form of stories, poems, parables and sermons? Why not a list of bullet points? Wouldn’t that be easier? If God really cared about getting everybody into heaven, wouldn’t it make things a lot more digestible if the Bible were merely handed down off a cosmic bookshelf with a title like Everything You Need to Know About God, Truth and Reality? The answer, I believe, is that reality comes to us in narrative form.

So is the primeval history of Genesis, Job or Jonah more like Fargo than PBS’ Nova? It seems to be the case. Does that somehow diminish the seriousness, the importance, relevance or truth of these accounts (or Fargo)? I am inclined to think, no. I say, let’s put a “Based on a true story” tag on our Bibles, open them up, and immerse ourselves in the story, just like we do Band of Brothers or Fargo. The fullness of God is not contained in Scripture, but mediated through it. After all, aren’t we invited to pass through the text and into another realm, what Jesus called, “the kingdom of heaven”? I want to make my reality congruent with this one, not the other way around.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Do yourself a favor: rent Water and watch this film. I saw it at the recent City of Angels film festival and thought it was entirely good. Strong performances, potent visuals and an extremely compelling story make this one of the best movies I've seen in a while. It's a movie about the mistreatment of widows in India during Gandhi's peaceful movement for liberation. The film raises issues of universal import, including the nature of God and truth, the roles of women and the dangers of fundamentalist religious dogma. I realize the preceding description may lead you to believe the film is heavy-handed or esoteric, but it's really quite accessible.

Friday, October 5, 2007


Before I forget, I went to Pasadena Mennonite Church last Sunday. It's a close-knit church, not too big, not too small. They operate simply without any pretense of performance. There are dozens of Fuller students and faculty among the members. On Sunday, several people were baptized. Like a number of churches I've been to, the act of baptism is an intimate and important event in the life of the church. The people at PMC take baptism and fellowship in their community quite seriously. About ten people placed their membership and gave testimonies regarding their decisions. One of these new members, a middle-aged guy, made a classic comment. He began to explain why he and his wife had chosen PMC, paused for a moment, and confessed, "We liked PMC because we didn't get mad every time we came to church." A great, honest comment, I think. I can relate. Thank God there are real communities of faith out there exhibiting genuine commitment to the way of Jesus.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Insensitive Christians

I've been thinking about this one for a while, but never written it down. It has to do with a Christian quality I believe is too frequently overlooked or disregarded in the Church: sensitivity. I believe a lack of sensitivity is tied directly to an overdeveloped sense of Self and usually results in contempt. Here's an example:

I used to work at a big huge church somewhere and I directed the "show" on Sundays, which we called IMAG, or image magnification for the congregation and a live cut to DVD. I'd sit in a darkened room in the back of the church (the "production booth") with four or five other people ("technical ministers"). Many of these technical people were volunteers who simply wanted to "do something" for the church. This involved a great deal of turnover within the "tech team."

One week, a likely homosexual came to the booth to run the CCU's (camera control units), which meant three big knobs that remotely controlled the aperture on our video cameras. Not only was he probably gay, but this man was also African-American, making him one of a handful in the whole church (of about 2,500 weekly). He did his duty that week somewhat clumsily, and it was my job to sort of "disciple" him in the technical ways. I always tried to treat our service with a light heart and with some measure of joy, while certain others frequently treated their obligations with a dire dread of mistakes and extreme criticality. As such, I would try to talk to these passers-by and learn a little about them each week. This man was friendly but shy, a little nervous perhaps. At the end of the day I thanked him for his contribution and he left. No big deal.

When he had left, the floodgates opened, as if everyone had been holding their breath for hours, waiting desperately for a chance to unleash. There was talk about his apparent homosexuality. This was "verified" by another volunteer who said the church elders had gone to his home to investigate his morals (why they have not done the same with our senior pastor, I will never know). There they found some "questionable" videos and pictures (maybe he'd rented "Brokeback Mountain," I don't know) and asked him about his orientation. There was all manner of sentiments about how uncomfortable people had felt to be in his presence and the guy in charge even decided not to let him come back, uh, but only because he was pretty clumsy on the CCU's.

I sat there on the verge of tears and nausea all at once. "This is the church," I thought. "This is no 'ragamuffin gospel,' this is a gospel of judgment, intolerance, self-assurance and condemnation." I never saw the guy again in the control room. Whether I ever saw him again at church, I don't remember.

In The Divine Conspiracy, author Dallas Willard explains that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, exerts a great deal of energy to combat what is potentially humanity's greatest sin: contempt. He states bluntly: "It is not possible for people with such attitudes towards others to live in the movements of God's kingdom, for they are totally out of harmony with it" (154).

At All Saints Church in Pasadena, there is an environment of welcome for all peoples, even (gasp) homosexuals . I've sat right behind openly gay couples there, and I think: this is right. I'm not attempting here to defend homosexuality in all its forms, I'm trying to understand what the kingdom of God is like. In the Beatitudes, Jesus shatters his disciples' perceptions about who is welcomed into his kingdom: all of the lowly, dejected and rejected and lonely and contemptible people. The church is an assembly of sinners under the grace of Jesus Christ (right?). Shouldn't all the rest of us closet sex addicts and alcoholics and thieves and liars and fibbers and tax evaders and lazy people and judgmental people and porn addicts and racists and bigots and perfectionists and self-haters and so on understand best of all that a homosexual deserves every bit as much love as we deserve, not only from God but from ourselves? One of my favorite professors at Fuller, Dr. Stassen, claims that many problems arise within the church because there is not a deep enough understanding of sin.

To conclude, I think sensitivity is just another word for "other-centeredness," which may be just another word for "kingdom-centeredness." I pray that I and my fellow disciples would be a community of mutuality and grace, that we would "enter into" the tumultuous lives all around and let the bodily presence of Jesus--the church--embrace the most contemptible among us.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Round 2

I talked to the Mormon missionaries again today. Good conversation on the whole, as before, without any startling new revelations. Before they arrived, I spent a good amount of time today reading the Book of Mormon and taking some notes, filling out a pamphlet and praying as they asked me to do. However, I have yet to convert.

The main unresolved issue for me is the reliability of the Book of Mormon as a source of revelation or correction to my beliefs (which are apostate). Like the Qu'ran, there is no record of original manuscripts and no context in which they were written. Instead, they were handed down to a single prophet and a few lucky onlookers who attest to the miraculous and divine nature of the documents as well as their reception and transcription. Redactors throughout history have tried to edit difficult texts in the Bible, and it may be the case that Joseph Smith fits into that lineage with one of the greatest examples of oversimplification in history: the Book of Mormon. The sheer straightforwardness and simplicity of the text was enough to make me doubt it from the start. In short, it's an "easy" Scripture, and that rings alarm bells in my head.

I read through the three books of Nephi in the Book of Mormon, which recount how a Jewish man and his family sail from Palestine to somewhere in South America and begin a new, flourishing civilization that expresses faith in the (yet to come) Messiah, Jesus Christ. This, because special prophecies had come to the patriarchs providing extremely (and suspiciously) specific details about the coming of Jesus, and all this covering a period of about 600 years B.C. and some 400 years beyond. But, I thought, how on earth could a Christian civilization thrive in the Americas for a thousand years and leave no discernible trace of its existence? Shouldn't there be monumental evidence of a Hebrew people who worshiped Jesus and encountered the risen Christ after his Resurrection? I mean, what happened to these people? How could Christ and his disciples (in Israel) change the course of human history and leave a tremendous wake in the ocean of humanity for going on 2000 years, yet leave no evidence of their presence in the Americas until 1820? Curious.

So this led to a discussion on the nature of "faith," which was described to me as "a burning feeling" or "a feeling of conviction" or the "fruits of the Spirit" or "hope." However, there was nothing very substantial to faith as they described it. I, on the other hand, think faith is quite substantial and based on demonstrable acts of integrity, grace, provision, etc. The example I concocted on the spot was of a little boy standing at the edge of a pool while his dad encourages him to jump in because, after all, he'll catch him. If the father is a good man who has demonstrated time and again his strength, protection and reliability to his son, the boy will put his faith in him and jump. However, if dad is abusive, apathetic or easily distracted, the boy would have no faith in him. The simple fact that dad is dad means nothing. The term is loaded with freight, either good or bad, prompting either faithfulness or faithlessness in his son. If his dad really isn't reliable or "true," but the boy nonetheless places all of his hope in him, when he jumps, he'll still drown. Hope can be an empty and lifeless thing. Discussions about justification aside, this is what I believe James is talking about in his epistle: "Faith without works is dead." So in my understanding, faith is really more like trust than hope, and it is certainly not blind. In fact, I believe faith is clear sight. In short, I don't think I'd have faith in Jesus if it was devoid of substance, if there was nothing demonstrably good or trustworthy about Him, or if I'd never seen or known anything on a profound level.

One of the last questions I asked concerned an upsetting text I ran across in 2 Nephi 5:21, which describes the American Israelites as "white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome." A group of faithless people are cursed by God with "a skin of blackness," and made to be "loathsome," and God cursed the "mixing of their seed." I brought this up with the disclaimer that I'm well aware of uncomfortable texts in the Bible as well, and that this might well fit into the category of misunderstood texts. One missionary explained that it was not meant to be a racial thing, that it was merely a curse which was eventually lifted. This was a satisfactory explanation to me, but with one important qualifier. I proposed: what if this book was not the work of a 6th century B.C. Jewish prophet in Central America but the work of a 19th century North American white guy from New York? If so, that would make a text like this a powerful justification for bigotry. The missionaries wholeheartedly agreed, granting that if the Book of Mormon was a human product, then the entire enterprise of their faith was a sham and something like 2 Nephi 5:21 would be a very disagreeable text. Though again, faith had disallowed any such notions.

Another question I asked that generated an interesting response was: "Is the Book of Mormon an accurate historical record of an ancient peoples of the Americas?" The answer: yes. So, this could be taught to children in school about American history? Again, after some thought, yes. Now, I know that there are plenty of Christians out there who would say the same thing about the Bible, but I would not. The Book of Mormon is apparently deeply entrenched in its historicity, yet there is no discernible evidence of the reliability of its text (as it was taken from a single set of unavailable plates) or the presence of a Judeo-Christian civilization in the Americas that spanned a millennium. The Book does bear some important insights into the nature and failings of the Christian church, but that in itself is not nearly enough for me to stake my life in its claims. The Book of Mormon seems meaningful in the same way that the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Qu'ran or the Dhammapada are filled with beauty, mystery, and (yes) truth but lack a substantial basis for faith. As I said previously, it's precisely the
historical, contextual, geographical and human construction of the Bible that compels me to put my trust in it and give my life to the Jesus within (and without). I believe Jesus provides the clearest image of God and teaches us the best way to live, which is life in the "Kingdom of Heaven."

I hope I haven't trivialized the matter in any way, but those are my thoughts for now... Grace and Peace.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Post-Meeting Thoughts About Mormonism

I just spoke to a few Mormons for an hour in my living room. It was quite interesting. As a person relatively ignorant of Mormon theology, I was legitimately interested in hearing them out, learning what they believe and why, not counter-proselytizing them. These young guys were very well informed, humble and gracious. Overall, I was very impressed with them and genuinely grateful for their time.

While I could tell they were accustomed to following a routine of sorts—explaining the Bible’s gospel message at first, then moving on to how that was corrupted during the apostasy of the church and how God finally restored the church in 1820 through the prophet Joseph Smith, I kept on butting in asking tough questions. However, I intended to do so without any agenda or intent to make an “apology” for my own faith. This would be a simple theological discourse. I wanted it to be as free from scripts or formalisms as possible, and for both "sides" to approach the topic with openness.

As they presented the Mormon story, I noted the similarity between Joseph Smith’s revelatory episode that restored the true church and subsequent miraculous translation of a second revelation (the Book of Mormon) and the story of Mohammed and the formulation of the Qu’ran. I asked why I should believe Joseph Smith and not Mohammed. Related to this topic, I asked about which translation of the Bible they used and why. They use the King James Version because it is the most accurate. I explained that this is plainly false, according to my understanding, because the KJV is based on more recent manuscripts, while newer translations draw from far older sources that were discovered post-King James (and Joseph Smith for that matter). The sheer quantity of manuscripts and variant redactions of the Biblical text lends itself to its reliability, I explained. What accounts for the reliability of the Book of Mormon, which essentially anathematizes 1800 years of church history and my own faith in Jesus Christ (apparently, but I’m not sure—I hope to get some clarification of this on Friday) was the authority of the prophet Joseph Smith, as evidenced in the Book of Mormon itself.

They were exceedingly gracious, as I explained, and took all of these questions in stride. They talked a lot about evidence but could provide none—though they were humble enough to admit it, to their credit. The evidence for the veracity of the Book of Mormon, they explained, had come to them individually through prayer answered by the Holy Spirit, providing a kind of spiritual “stamp of approval” to their faith. This seemed to me dangerous, as self-verification seems like little proof of anything’s reliability, as it is cyclical (“the Book of Mormon is true because Joseph Smith received a revelation because it says so in the Book of Mormon”). This is one of the major problems I have with flat readings of the Qu’ran, the Book of Mormon and the Bible. If these Scriptures are believable based on their own account, then I’m not buying it. I think Mormons have accounted for this by interjecting the “feeling of faith” instilled by the Holy Spirit to prove the text’s believability. Again, I appeal to the historical, contextual, temporal, geographical and human construction of the Bible as proof of its reliability. I think because it is NOT simply handed down from a divinity as though off a heavenly bookshelf or ratified by a singular prophet or leader, but was canonized by the discernment of the Church in conjunction with the Holy Spirit that I find Orthodox faith and the Jesus of the Bible reliable and sufficient--the best Way to live.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say this Friday after our second meeting. An additional cool thing: they gave me a Book of Mormon for free, which they asked me to read and pray about... I plan to do this. In all, I found it entirely enriching (hopefully for everyone involved), and I sincerely pray for our collective guidance on this road of faith in obedience to Jesus Christ our Lord.

Friday, August 10, 2007


Haven't posted in a long time, so I thought I'd use this platform to showcase my latest commercial-making endeavor:

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Religionless Christianity

Here's a little something I wrote on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison for my ethics class with Dr. Glen "Pure Playa" Stassen. It's a response to the question, "What does Bonhoeffer mean by religionless Christianity?" I hope the answer is self-explanatory, though a quarter's-worth of reading and reflection lay behind it.

When Bonhoeffer describes “religionless Christianity,” he is speaking about a faith without boundaries. The concept of the “boundary” can be found throughout Bonhoeffer’s works in various contexts. In the present context, the boundary is one between the “world” and that which is beyond the world, namely, the things of God. Religion had become a kind of buffer between Person and Spirit, between the world of tangible, verifiable, propositional realities and the ineffable kingdom of the heavens. In other words, religion is a means of filling of the void within human understanding, of appropriating the things beyond comprehension (282). The danger inherent to this religiosity is that the boundary constantly flexes to accommodate humanity’s cognitive or experiential faculties. Therefore, the boundary between God and humanity expands with human understanding, pushing God further and further away.

Bonhoeffer vehemently opposes any such construction that separates reality into two spheres, one worldly and the other divine. Instead, all of reality is bound up in Jesus. The incarnation of God in Christ draws together the two spheres of reality—wrenched apart by religion—and sets the divine within the world. Bonhoeffer puts it plainly: “God is beyond in the midst of our life” (282). So the religion Bonhoeffer advocates is one that is worldly. He makes no allowance for a separation between God—that is, beyond the world—and God’s activities within the world, such as miracles and the ascension (285). God entered into the world in the incarnation, destroying the boundary religion seeks to erect. Humanity is not to be drawn up to some disembodied spiritual existence at the end of time, to a heaven in the clouds. The kingdom of heaven on earth is the focus of God’s work in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (286). At the same time, Bonhoeffer protects against a kind of reductionism that would exchange the boundary on humanity’s understanding for a limiting boundary on God, so that the divine is made finite. Bonhoeffer criticizes Barth’s “positivist” doctrine of revelation because it leaves no room for the infinite, for mystery (286). This “positivist” view relegates all of reality to something that must be accepted either completely or not at all.

Taking all of this into account, it follows that there cannot be a “secular” world and the “world of faith,” or any other manifestation of a two realm split. The incarnation draws the two together. The God beyond comprehension is concerned with this world “created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored” (286). Therefore, when Bonhoeffer advocates a “religionless Christianity,” he is talking about drawing all of life into one realm: the Kingdom of God. There is no distinction between secular and divine, only life within the Kingdom, with Jesus Christ as Lord.

Bethge, Eberhard, ed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

My Brain

Have you ever wondered what kind of garbage is constantly floating like silt on the waters of my mind? Let this be the answer. The following is the result of a late-night writing marathon for Dr. Thompson's Patristic Theology class last fall during which I lost control of my brain. Though I posted this elsewhere several months ago, I figured I would share it here too.

Augustine was a wee little man who liked to eat pudding from the bottom of a lily while strolling down Crunchberry Lane, all the while twirling and spinning and twirling some more. One day he ate a bumblebee. He also liked to get his hair combed in the shape of a frigate, his favorite of the seagoing vessels. Sometimes he would attach bells to the buckle of his boots so he’d jingle and jangle and bingle and gangle. He’d skip and prance like a gazelle just to hear the noise. “Fra la la, la la tee day!” he would say. Oh the merriment! Oh the extravagance! Oh the flatulence! Pelagius was jealous especially of Augustine’s flatulence and the attention of the ladies it earned him. The ladies regarded Augustine as highly as the players of fife and pale in the town of Razzlemuffin.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Reflections on the works of director Terrence Malick

Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World

Surreal. Meditative. Poetic. Tragic. Natural. Illuminated. Human. Theological.
Philosophical. Transcendent. Unconventional. Watching one of director’s Terrence Malick’s films is like wandering through a dream at times both good and bad. His style is unique. Rather than giving audiences with yet another typically mundane narrative, Malick’s approach is to provide a meditative space for a viewer to hear, experience and feel a distinct world. It is our world, the real world filtered through poetry—poetry of image, character, music, and sound. All of his films are loosely historical, bearing the distinct marks of Malick’s imagination and interpretation. There is something historical in every one of his films, something distinct to a certain culture, geography, or era, but we’re not presented the flat facts. These stories are myths or parables. As any good myth does, rather than covering or diminishing clear perceptions of reality, what is true and real is engaged, enlivened, and illuminated.

The most unfortunate part about what I’m about to write is that so few people have experienced watching these films, and fewer still appreciate them. Some wonder how I could possibly count these (unbearable) movies among my favorites, and I wonder how those people fail to appreciate—even if only in a detached way—art of such depth, beauty, mystery and honest reflection. Maybe Malick’s work lacks popular appeal because of its comfort with mystery, with the undefined, the unspoken, the things that are not wrapped up into a neat package. Though I’ve watched each movie a dozen times or more, I still don’t “get” everything. Rather than diminishing my appreciation for the work, the mystery makes each viewing valuable and new. For many moviegoers, I think the overriding concern is for a palatable resolution of the story, the ultimate happiness of the protagonists, and the destruction of evil (people). Malick gives us ambiguity on many levels, with open ends and frayed edges, and seems content in doing so. Mystery leaves questions open, calls a person to probe deeper, to remain fascinated with something. Ultimately, isn’t that what the mystery in meditation is all about? Not figuring something out or encapsulating a person or idea in an easy-to-swallow capsule to consume and forget, as though the object of our meditation had been “understood”. Not making love, truth, beauty, God, and people into propositions—proposals to accept or reject. Malick isn’t comfortable to close the book on God, love, or truth within the imaginative realm of these stories nor, presumably, in the real world.

As a Christ-follower intensely concerned with the things of God, I see other values in Malick’s work as well. Constant attention is given to creation, the natural world: animals, insects, trees, rivers, landscapes, mountains, beaches, and people—these are all sanctified, touched by the hand of God. Malick loves to show us people who live simply, who lack pretension, bitterness and greed, as the native people of The New World or the Melanesian islanders of The Thin Red Line. However, his vision of earth also rightly acknowledges the ugliness within creation, the result of human sin. In The Thin Red Line, Malick provides the clearest allusion to sin’s effect on the whole of creation. Paraphrasing Augustine’s Confessions, the narrator asks, “This great evil… where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of life and light; mocking us with the sight of what we might have known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow and the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you too? Have you passed through this night?”

The narrator asks this question in the midst of a chaotic village battle between American and Japanese soldiers on the island of Guadalcanal. In the scene, one side can hardly be distinguished from the other. It’s a scene of humanity caught up in a vast whirlpool of its own destruction. When the narrator asks the question, “Who’s killing us?” the intended recipient of the question is left unclear, and I think intentionally so. Are we the audience being asked? Is he inquiring after God? By framing the question in this way, we participate in asking the question ourselves, directing it in several directions at once. This is the irresistible beauty and tragedy of Malick’s work.

That's it for this woefully inadequate reflection. I intend to write some more on the specifics of the individual films at a later time, but I hope this will suffice as a brief summary or overview for now. The most important thing to do now is watch these movies!

Sunday, March 4, 2007

The Silent Tolerance of Wrongdoing

What is a Christian’s responsibility when faced with falsehood or wrongdoing, especially within the context of the church? In my experience working in the church, I have found that many sincere Christians believe it is their duty to respond to falsehood with silent tolerance, especially when the problem comes down from an authority such as a senior pastor. Tolerance in this circumstance is based upon a person’s intention to “maintain unity” or to “obey one’s authorities.” Both are biblical mandates, but neither are appropriately applied with certain circumstances. When church leaders abuse their authority by lording it over their subordinates, or when they willingly persist in wrongdoing without reproval, they commit injustice and deserve to be confronted with their sin. Such activity should not be tolerated.

Justice is a necessary component of Christian life. John Calvin wrote, “Where you hear God’s glory mentioned, think of his justice. For whatever deserves praise must be just” (TPR, 209). In my church experience, “justice” has been a foreign concept, ignored, or perhaps merely considered unimportant to faith and practice. When Godly people tolerate wrong after wrong, the result is oppression and spiritual bondage. Additionally, the wrongdoer often uses this tolerance to their advantage, testing the limits of acceptability and exercising greater authoritarianism. I’m writing this as I read the work of Katharina Schutz Zell, wife of Matthew Zell, a popular Protestant minister in Germany during the sixteenth century. Up to that time, clerical celibacy had been strictly enforced by the Catholic church, and people like the Zell’s were among the first to challenge it. As a result, many opponents to clerical marriage spread rumors and lies about the sinfulness of their union, and sought to defend the authority of the Catholic Church. When many within the church attacked her for her marriage, Zell spoke out rather than suffering their abuses silently.

In response to the lies, the outspoken Katharina makes an appeal to justice, citing John 18:22-23: [When Christ was struck in the face by Ananias’ servant], “He did not strike back, He did not flee, He did not resist the evil at all, as He had previously taught His disciples. However, He did not keep silent about it as if the servant acted rightly, but He said, 'If I have spoken evil, give proof of it, but if not, why do you strike me?' For it is sufficient that we Christians suffer injustice; we should not say that injustice is justice" (Zell, 66). I believe the same principles apply, say, in the case of a pastor who consistently makes unfair demands on his employees’ time, for example, when giving assignments at the last minute or ordering changes without consultation. While it would not be right to “strike back” by slacking off on one’s work, it is altogether acceptable to ask (with Christ), “why did you strike me?” I think Christ’s example in John shows us that suffering is part of the Christian life, but silence is not.

If those within the church were more sensitive to and involved in the lives of their brothers and sisters, another thoughtful person could ask these questions on behalf the one suffering. Those who lack a voice are the very ones who are most deserving of intercession on their behalf. In any case, to be silent or passive about wrongdoing is to support the wrong. It will not suffice to appeal to utilitarianism: that at the expense of one, many benefit. The church cannot function in this way. When the powerful are uncontested in their abuses, their abuses increase. Something unhealthy for an individual suddenly becomes unhealthy for several people, and then many, until an entire church body is polluted.

I have witnessed people quietly tolerate much grief in the name of obedience, or because they didn’t want to stir up trouble. In the course of this silent tolerance, many aspects of life experience the effects of injustice: individual spiritual and physical health deteriorate, the family life suffers the problems of the individual, and a connection is severed between one’s work and worship at church and the greater purposes of God and the Kingdom. We will suffer, but we should not be silent.

Hillerbrand, Hans J., ed. The Protestant Reformation. Harper & Row, 1968.

Katharina Schutz Zell, “Apologia for Master Matthew Zell,” in Church Mother: The Writings of a Protestant Reformer in Sixteenth-Century Germany, ed. Elsie McKee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), pp. 57-82.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Some Clarity on Calvin

“Calvinism” used to be a dirty word to me. When considered, I would gloss over the subject by rote dismissal, thinking such a concept contradictory to the foundational aspects of Christian faith, such as the independence and freedom of the human will. And who could blame me? I’ve "come of age" in a context where the imperative to “make a decision for Christ” was made to be the central function of the church. Every week, some well-meaning minister would offer some kind of emotional appeal to his audience to come forward and “choose Jesus.” The plea would usually go something like this: “The time to decide is now! Don’t delay! You could wake up dead tomorrow! Become a Christian! Join the team that’s going to heaven!” According to John Calvin (1509-1564), one of the fathers of the Protest Reformation, this type of faith—common to many in the modern church—is inconsistent with the witness of Scripture and accurate theology. Instead, Calvin seeks to reclaim and reshape the “catholic” theologies of Augustine, Aquinas, and the Apostles, because the Catholic Church had corrupted their teaching by superimposing a system of “works-righteousness.” Like Luther, Calvin holds firmly to the doctrine that humanity is saved by faith alone*, and in laying out the justice of predestination, he seeks to draw the church into a proper relationship with God.

The overarching principle of Calvin’s discussion of predestination is the preeminence and centrality of God in all things. All of humanity, the cosmos, and time itself exist to serve God’s eternal purposes, which are beyond human comprehension. In other words, this is Calvin’s way of turning our eyes again to the declaration first expounded in the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:2). As I read it, Calvin’s desire is to reclaim the holiness of God, which is central to orthodoxy. And when people come to recognize the holiness of God, that is the beginning of real humility.

When I said at the outset that “Calvinism used to be a dirty word,” my main contention with the idea was I could not accept that I was not a free moral agent capable of independent action. Therefore, God could not predestine or determine all things outside of space and time, because I believed a God who determined that some of my friends and family should inevitably be consigned to flames of woe for all eternity for no cause whatsoever was simply unacceptable. The self or human centeredness reflected in such a view is precisely what Calvin sought to combat. The question Calvin asks is this: if salvation, or “election,” is not a matter of God’s will and control, but relies on the “decision” of the individual, does this not impose ludicrous limitations upon God? Calvin asks: “Would [you] wish God’s might so limited as to be unable to accomplish any more than [your] mind can conceive?” In this case, God would be deprived of freedom. Instead of acting as the cause and necessity of all things, the element of control would be stripped of God, now forced to respond in turn to the “decisions” of certain people. This God is not free, therefore, glory should not be ascribed to God. Why praise God for acting out of obligation? If salvation was simply a person’s acceptance of a series of propositions and promises, do not these people “earn” election unto salvation by merit of that decision? By ascribing all things to the predestination of God, Calvin asserts God’s freedom, and when a free God chooses to elect anyone from humanity—a race despoiled by sin—this is nothing but grace. Presumably, Calvin cannot conceive of grace operating in another way. If you are now wondering how there is any justice in God electing some for salvation while condemning others without regard for their merits, Calvin has an answer. Justice, by its very nature, demands that all people be condemned. The greatest injustice of all is that God would show grace to undeserving sinners, and for this, we should rejoice.

I realize I have forsaken massive parts of Calvin’s argument and probably misrepresented him as well, but I hope this summary will suffice to generate some thought and discussion on the subject. Let me conclude with an example of the illusion of human control provided by my professor, Dr. John Thompson. It goes like this:

You walk into California Pizza Kitchen and peruse the menu, which is packed with choices. You scan this extensive document from top to bottom but still cannot make up your mind as to what you’ll order. After some deliberation, you decide to go with the same pizza you’ve ordered on every other visit to the restaurant. In the end, did you really make a choice, or did you turn to a default position? How many of the events that comprise our lives are in reality defaults, or habits, or ingrained conditions of which we are largely unaware, but which invisibly control our day-to-day existence? The illusion of control is an obstacle to humility, and Calvin would have it demolished. Dr. Thompson also offered this thought to the class: “The most centering, humbling, transcendent moments are those when I realize God is working through me. I do not regard this as a violation of my will, but a feeling of surety of purpose. [That which is worked through me] was mine, and it was a gift” (paraphrase).

I’d love to discuss the issues further (since I don’t have a solid grasp on them myself), so feel free to comment.

I am indebted to Dr. John Thompson, Professor of Church History at Fuller Seminary for exposing me to the nuances of Calvin and assigning a paper on the justice of predestination. If you encounter a compelling argument or enlightening illustration, it has most likely lifted and/or adapted from his lectures.

* This topic deserves a separate treatment, as it is frequently subject to gross misrepresentation or simple misunderstanding. If you’re not well-versed on the subject, I highly recommend reading Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian Man (1520), or his Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535), because, it seems to me, there’s more to the argument than is commonly expressed in certain church circles.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Thoughts on the Politicization of Christianity

The other day I stumbled across a website called "Apprising Ministries," a kind of online blog whose purpose seems to be the policing of the entire spiritual world. This includes an avalanche of condemnations against what they refer to as "New Evangelicalism" and the emergent church movement among others. Although not alone, one institution that receives some of the harshest and most condescending rhetoric is Fuller Theological Seminary (and those associated with it), where I am currently studying. On this and a number of other cites with similar agendas, the prevailing idea is that Fuller is a "spiritual cesspool" and among the most powerful tools Satan currently employs to poison Christ's church, not to mention contaminate the purity and essence of our precious bodily fluids. Another website called "Slice of Laodicea" reflects this view well. Fuller is called, "a mystical hotbed of new age spirituality posing as Christendom...or should I say Christen-dumb" by one commentator. Another offers the following thoughts: "The flow of excriment and the odiferous spiritual stench coming out from Fuller Theological Cemetary gives a Biblical Christian more reason to meditate and respect God's wisdom in some of the often overlooked portions of Scripture." Not only is Fuller compared to a crap-filled sewer and gravesite, but this person goes on to suggest that the seminary is offers something other than Biblical education and training. Another contributor to the dialogue claims that her pastor was not accepted to Fuller because of his theologically conservative beliefs.

There is also included a kind of spiritual blacklist, which includes the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, (apostates within) the Southern Baptist convention and "evolutionists". Contemplative spirituality is attacked as well, so I suppose people like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster would fall into the "apostate" category as well. Among those decried as heretics and teachers of apostasy are Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Rick Warren (the latter two are Fuller graduates). Rick Warren receives the greatest amount of criticism for a variety of reasons, and one of these jumped out at me. One person cites Rick Warren's use of the revenue generated by his book, Purpose Driven Life, saying that while Rick Warren repaid the church his entire 25 year salary, gives away 90% of his income, lives on 10%, and uses his influence to "mobilize Christians to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and combat illiteracy," Mr. Warren is guilty of practicing a "social gospel" and excluding "CHRIST!!!!" (yes, four exclamation points).

I recognize that these opinions represent the minority and not the majority of Christians, and for that I am thankful. Nonetheless, I write all this because I believe many within the so-called "conservative" camp hold to these kinds of views in varying degrees or permutations. From first hand experience, I have observed what many Christians consider to be authentic, Biblical Christianity, and the effects of such beliefs. This Christianity is characterized by a severe wariness of "intellectualism," disdain for the spiritual disciplines and "outer" works, an ironic insistence on sola scriptura ("only Scripture"), disregard and sometimes contempt for the traditions of the church, claims to exclusivity (which entails a wariness of nearly every other denomination and religion, and deep respect for the military and the necessity of "Christendom" as the means of maintaining God's kingship on earth). While I have never met a person as vehemently judgmental and self-righteous as the people writing on these various "Team Christian: World Police" sites, this kind of thinking is manifest in various forms. I believe this kind of discourse does far more harm than good, if any good at all. The most prominent result of this kind of rhetoric is increased polarization in the Christian community. It is people like these who contribute most to my despair for the future of the church and desire to simply remove myself entirely from such a contentious and smug context forever.

Allow me to address the Fuller issue first. Let me begin by saying: Fuller Seminary is not perfect. Nobody teaching or studying at Fuller Seminary is anywhere near perfect. All are covered by the grace of Jesus Christ. I have yet to meet anyone who claims otherwise. Fuller is comprised of a diverse student body from every corner of the globe and numerous religious backgrounds, including several Roman Catholics, Messianic Jews, and a slew of Presbyterians. Most are serious, committed Christians who serve in local churches of all shapes and sizes, or intend to do similar work for the glory of the kingdom of God, whether it be in the world of psychology, missions, or any other trade. Some are politically conservative, and some are theologically conservative as well, holding firmly to the inerrancy of Scripture as do the "Laodiceans." Some are politically and/or theologically "liberal" as well, while most would best be classified as "moderates" (I use quotes around these stupid titles because I can hardly stand writing them. They have become harmful labels one group uses to rally behind, or a lens formed to manipulate, distort, and marginalize the other group). Whatever political or theological position is held by a particular student or professor, Fuller is a place where tensions are welcomed and dialogue is fundamental. I take great offense to the ignorant abuses heaped upon the school and the thousands of people who worship, study, and teach there for the sake of Christ and His church. Classifying the school as a "mystical hotbed of new age spirituality posing as Christendom" is plainly wrong on many levels. Whatever "new age" means, to use the title to classify Fuller is astoundingly simplistic and reflects the opinion of a person who has nothing but the most cursory and biased exposure to the school. Secondly, the idea of "Christendom" would likely be offensive to most of the school's population as the term denotes centuries of intolerance, persecution, and war. Most students would probably join with Martin Luther in saying, "Take heed and first fill the world with real Christians before you attempt to rule it in a Christian and evangelical manner." Lastly, the school is no "mystical hotbed," and I don't know exactly how to refute that but to simply say: It is not true. That has not been my experience. I don't know what a "mystical hotbed" would look like, but I assume this person is insinuating that we students are encouraged to participate in Buddhist, Hindu, or other forms of eastern mysticism, rather than the classical Christian disciplines Jesus himself practiced, as well as the vast majority of the church fathers and lay Christians through the centuries. More on that topic later.

As for the "blacklist" that has been compiled, I will only address the idea that Rick Warren is guilty of preaching and practicing a "social gospel." Protestant, mainstream Christianity has come to be characterized by an emphasis on triumphalism (the victory of Christ), a de-emphasis on "works" (because we are justified by faith in Christ), and the priority of individual conversion (to belief in certain propositions about God, at the least). Triumphalism is a pervasive mentality in the modern church. What it lacks is the centrality of the poverty and suffering of Christ, which is also (supposed to be) fundamental for all Christians: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24). As for Jesus' ministry, it was a very social one. The in-breaking of the kingdom of God at the hands of Jesus entailed the healing of the sick, caring for the needy and the poor, reframing the relationship between master and slave, male and female, mighty and meek; in short, establishing a new kind of society on earth. And regarding individual conversion, I think it's great, but amid all the evangelical fervor and proselytizing of unbelievers, what has been lost are the grander purposes God has been preparing for the church from the beginning, namely, the restoration of the entire world. If this is kept before our eyes, social action takes on a different character. Instead of acts undertaken to earn merits, to prove our faith or convert our neighbors, "works" take on a different character. They are the very real bandages dressing the very real wounds suffered by a world for which God was willing to die. After all, what does Christian faith look like aside from the work of Christ lived out in the community of faith which bears his name? The answer, I believe, is all around. This faith, predominantly internal in nature and concerned with "getting people to heaven," produces apathetic Christians who have little to offer a world that is crumbling to hell all around.

Finally, I want to share some of my thoughts on the broader issues involved in the politicization of the church, especially concerning the liberal/conservative dichotomy. I have seen and experienced each of these to some degree. First, intellectualism, in what I will (hesitantly) classify as "conservative circles," is regarded as a danger to orthodox Christianity and an impediment to genuine faith. The common effects of anti-intellectualism are contempt for "secular" academic institutions and their "liberal" professors (all of whom are believed to be lurking in the dark, waiting for some untarnished young Christian to abduct and befoul with their "worldly" ideas); unflinching skepticism of the biological, physical, and psychological sciences; and in some cases, it will produce senior pastors who plagiarize their every sermon without providing accreditation, I suppose so as not to appear overly "intellectual." On a personal note, certain "secular" professors have made a profound impact on me intellectually and spiritually. Second, I mentioned earlier that there is often found an ironic insistence on sola scriptura ("only scripture") in the life of the church. By this, I mean the Bible-thumping contention that "all of life's answers can be found in this book." There are several ironies here. To begin, most of the preachers I see waving Bibles in the air, offering exhortations to "read, read, read your Bibles!" and proclaiming that their churches practice authentic, Biblical Christianity rarely open the Bibles they thump. Some, like the plagiarist cited above, who take every reference from another pastor's outline in the first place, may not read the book at all. In regards to inerrancy, I say, who cares if the Bible's inerrant if nobody's reading it? The level of Biblical literacy generated in many so-called "Biblical" churches is pitiful. Many lifelong churchgoers lack a basic knowledge of the content, form, and style of the Bible, and lack the resources to engage in basic interpretation of the text. And the touted authentic brand of Biblical Christianity that's often preached bears little resemblance to the early church, except in some superficial ways (of course, to know this, you'd need a basic understanding of church history, which is also lacking). Third, there is an implicit disregard for the classic Christian spiritual disciplines and the traditions of the church. I believe that the lack of training in spiritual disciplines is a major contributor to the general lack of effectual discipleship. This I have, and am still, learning the hard way. For those who believe in the Platonic ideals of body/soul dualism, perhaps a lack of spiritual training is okay, because what they're preparing for is the blessed departure from the evil material world and the bliss of disembodied existence in heaven. For those who must deal with the body and the physical world and care for God's physical creation, these disciplines are central. Fourth, many churches and churchgoers are remarkably wary of their Christian brothers and sisters on different sides of the political spectrum. The conservatives don't associate with the liberals, and vice versa. Not only is this quite non-Biblical and unhelpful, it has prevented the church from making significant strides in other areas, such as racial reconciliation, closing the gap between rich and poor, and dealing with significant issues such as homosexuality. Again I ask, what is Christian faith if not concerned with (social) issues such as these? Last is the topic of "Christendom," or a God-ordained human government on earth, instituting Christian worship and practice by law. This is closely tied to the nationalistic sentiments that pervade so many conservative churches. I know many people who would be perfectly content to see Christendom (something that arguably reached its pinnacle with the reign of Emperor Constantine) firmly and inexorably established in America. This conflation of kingdoms is a dangerous thing, and has done more harm than good. As I mentioned before, Martin Luther himself argued against it vehemently. There is one word that best describes this God-and-America mentality: idolatry. To illustrate, I'll start a new paragraph.

A couple years ago, an unnamed church put on an Easter service extravaganza at a local sporting arena. At tremendous expense, the church blitzed the media with advertising, rented tons of hi-tech equipment, and hired a country music act to sing "special music," all with the intention of drawing "seekers" for the salvation of their immortal souls. Now, maybe you have a problem with Easter being such a circus, since it's supposedly the holiest day on the (Evangelical) Christian calendar. Well, you're right to be upset, but I'm not finished. After an unnamed preacher preached a plagiarized sermon, the pastel-colored choir sang a few songs, the offering plates were passed, and communion was unwrapped and consumed, the star attraction stepped onto the stage for the culmination of the Paschal celebration: Mr. Lee Greenwood. Solemnly, he took his mic, and to the accompaniment of a CD track, he sang "God Bless the U.S.A.," which was followed by thunderous applause. In retrospect, I believe this to be the absolute lowest point of my church experience. The faith I saw displayed that day is a show on par with a Britney Spears concert. It is consumer-focused, godless, and irreverent. It is idolatrous. It is everything I don't want the church to be.

In broad strokes, those are my thoughts on politicization within the church. It is my sincere hope and prayer that these thoughts of mine contribute to a thoughtful and peaceful dialogue aimed at reclaiming the heart of orthodoxy, that is, right belief. If my thoughts only generate more discord, then I'll throw them out and start over again. I am well aware of my own shortcomings and I'm aware that my opinions on the topics in this paper will doubtless shift as I mature. I'm aware I have probably left a lot unsaid as well. And to end with a word of agreement with those I have otherwise disagreed: I affirm the centrality of Christ. Christ supersedes all social and political agendas, every church doctrine and spiritual discipline, every disagreement. May Christ be our completer, our justifier, and our hope. Amen.